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Horse Welfare:
Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter

GAO-11-228, Published: Jun 22, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 22, 2011.


Since fiscal year 2006, Congress has annually prohibited the use of federal funds to inspect horses destined for food, effectively prohibiting domestic slaughter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for overseeing the welfare of horses transported for slaughter. Congress directed GAO to examine horse welfare since cessation of domestic slaughter in 2007. GAO examined (1) the effect on the U.S. horse market, if any, since cessation; (2) any impact of these market changes on horse welfare and on states, local governments, tribes, and animal welfare organizations; and (3) challenges, if any, to USDA's oversight of the transport and welfare of U.S. horses exported for slaughter. GAO analyzed horse price and shipping data, and interviewed officials from USDA, state and local governments, tribes, the livestock industry, and animal welfare organizations, and reviewed documents they provided..

Since domestic horse slaughter ceased in 2007, the slaughter horse market has shifted to Canada and Mexico. From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148 and 660 percent to Canada and Mexico, respectively. As a result, nearly the same number of U.S. horses was transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010--nearly 138,000--as was slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased. Available data show that horse prices declined since 2007, mainly for the lower-priced horses that are more likely to be bought for slaughter. GAO analysis of horse sale data estimates that closing domestic horse slaughtering facilities significantly and negatively affected lower-to-medium priced horses by 8 to 21 percent; higher-priced horses appear not to have lost value for that reason. Also, GAO estimates the economic downturn reduced prices for all horses by 4 to 5 percent. Comprehensive, national data are lacking, but state, local government, and animal welfare organizations report a rise in investigations for horse neglect and more abandoned horses since 2007. For example, Colorado data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009. Also, California, Texas, and Florida reported more horses abandoned on private or state land since 2007. These changes have strained resources, according to state data and officials that GAO interviewed. State, local, tribal, and horse industry officials generally attributed these increases in neglect and abandonments to cessation of domestic slaughter and the economic downturn. Others, including representatives from some animal welfare organizations, questioned the relevance of cessation of slaughter to these problems. USDA faces three broad challenges in overseeing the welfare of horses during transport to slaughter. First, among other management challenges, the current transport regulation only applies to horses transported directly to slaughtering facilities. A 2007 proposed rule would more broadly include horses moved first to stockyards, assembly points, and feedlots before being transported to Canada and Mexico, but delays in issuing a final rule have prevented USDA from protecting horses during much of their transit to slaughtering facilities. In addition, GAO found that many owner/shipper certificates, which document compliance with the regulation, are being returned to USDA without key information, if they are returned at all. Second, annual legislative prohibitions on USDA's use of federal funds for inspecting horses impede USDA's ability to improve compliance with, and enforcement of, the transport regulation. Third, GAO analysis shows that U.S. horses intended for slaughter are now traveling significantly greater distances to reach their final destination, where they are not covered by U.S. humane slaughter protections. With cessation of domestic slaughter, USDA lacks staff and resources at the borders and foreign slaughtering facilities that it once had in domestic facilities to help identify problems with shipping paperwork or the condition of horses before they are slaughtered. GAO suggests that Congress may wish to reconsider restrictions on the use of federal funds to inspect horses for slaughter or, instead, consider a permanent ban on horse slaughter. GAO recommends that USDA issue a final rule to protect horses through more of the transportation chain to slaughter and consider ways to better leverage resources for compliance activities. USDA agreed with GAO's recommendations and noted specific actions it will take to implement them.

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